Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Despite what Isabel Briggs Myers has taught us, real people’s personalities can usually be difficult to fit comfortably into neat little categories. People can be both introverted and extroverted, and go from being supremely self-confident to shrinking violets depending on their situation. The task of imbuing something as complex and unique as a personality onto a fictional person is tricky at the best of times, but often even trickier for the hero.
Why? Well, firstly because main characters’ personalities can sometimes be dulled by the weight of having to carry most of the plot on their shoulders, often leaving little room for them to crack jokes or have any real ‘down’ time. The other detracting factor for heroes is that their heroism can get in the way of them being interesting people. This problem is more acutely exposed within fictional heroic team/group dynamics, where the leader’s personality is often dampened by an overbearing sense of responsibility and righteousness, making them the unfortunate ‘fun-sponge’ of the group. Think of it as the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Effect’.Sometimes you need a straight-laced hero, but there’s always room to spice them up a little.Click To Tweet
Obviously, creating a story around a ‘straight-man’ archetype can work really well if there are other characters with clashing personalities to play them off of (think Steve Rogers and Tony Stark’s winning dynamic in the Marvel comics and movies). But that doesn’t mean your classic ‘straight-man’ hero shouldn’t have the kinds of edges and layers that make a character’s personality really shine through.
What is a personality?
It seems like an odd thing to ask, doesn’t it? After all, we all have a pretty good idea of what a personality is, even though it’s an abstract idea. But being able to clearly define what a personality is will make it that much easier to clearly define one for your hero.
The short answer is that a personality is what makes you, you. It’s what informs our tastes, opinions, motivations and reactions. From a psychologist’s point of view, personality develops in three different ways, “the person as actor (behaving), agent (striving), and author (narrating)”. ‘Actor’ refers to our dispositional traits, ‘agent’ refers to our motivational values, and ‘author’ refers to our ‘self-narrative’ or ‘narrative identity’, meaning, “the storied understanding that a person develops regarding how he or she came to be and where he or she is going in life”.A character’s personality is a combination of disposition, motivation and personal narrative.Click To Tweet
So, now that we’ve broken down a personality into three distinct elements, let’s break those down a little further.
You know that ‘glass half-full or half-empty’ phrase? Well, that’s basically what a disposition is. In a nutshell, it relates to a person’s mood, usually expressed through seeing things in either a positive or negative light. Creating and communicating your hero’s disposition will help give them a stable, recognizable personality and a predictable way of reacting to almost any situation. It also acutely affects their decision-making and negotiating processes.
On the disposition scale, we’ve got ‘sunny’ on one end and ‘depressive’ on the other. A classic example of a hero with a ‘sunny’ disposition is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry ‘Huck’ Finn – unwaveringly cheerful and innately trusting of others, sometimes to his detriment. A classic example of a hero with a ‘depressive’ disposition is Eeyore from A. A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, whose predilection for cynicism borders on a clinical diagnosis. Obviously, unless you’re writing for a younger audience or aiming for parody, you’ll want to situate your hero’s disposition somewhere between these two extremes.
This one sort of speaks for itself really, doesn’t it? In the context of personality, motivational traits, as well as goals and plans, extend also to values and virtues. What does your hero ultimately want in life? What and who do they value above all else? What gets them out of bed in the morning? How do they cope with challenges? Referring back to my psychologist source, again:
As agentic, self-determining beings, people do more than merely act in more-or-less consistent ways across situations and over time. As agents, people make choices; they plan their lives; they will their very identity into being.
– Dan P. McAdams and Bradley D. Olson, ‘Personality Development: Continuity and Change Over the Life Course’ from Annual Review of Psychology
For a hero, motivational traits are usually the most dominant in defining their personality. For a reluctant hero like Frodo Baggins, his motivation to perform an immensely dangerous mission for the greater good overrides his obvious fear and inexperience. For a lovable, roguish hero like Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Quill (or ‘Star-Lord’, as he prefers to be called), his ‘loner’ outlaw status is overridden by his loyalty to his new-found friends and motivation to save the galaxy from destruction. For an anti-hero like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), his motivation to kill people overrides, well, just about everything.
This is, in a way, the glue that binds everything together in a personality. It’s how we make sense of all of our past experiences and current position in the world, and decide how they feed into our sense of self. It’s also where cultural identity intersects with psychological identity, encompassing how we – whether knowingly or not – bind our dispositional and motivational traits with our social, political, ideological and economic environment, cultural heritage, formal education and expectations of our gender role. In other, less convoluted, words – how external factors beyond our control shape who and what we define ourselves to be.
For a hero – or any other character, really – this is where their backstory, setting and relationships will inform and shape their personality.
Putting it all together
Putting these three qualities together provides a blueprint for personality, and suggests that authors should work out from a character’s core when they create it. You could even parse it as a three-step process:
- How does this character approach the world?
- Knowing this, what does this character want out of life and from their immediate situation?
- Knowing that, how does a character need to perceive the world to cope with their everyday life, history, and/or new events?
You might decide a character is particularly depressive, for instance, and that their main motivation is to be left alone. With these elements of personality established, it makes sense for your character to eschew interpersonal interaction as unnecessary or false – it’s not something they want or need, in fact they don’t want it, so their personal narrative is likely to dismiss it.Your character’s personality starts deep, but it’s also forged from their choices.Click To Tweet
You might create a hedonistic character, concerned with satiating their vices. Their personal narrative – the story they tell themselves about the world – therefore needs to excuse excess, whether it’s by denying a moral framework that would forbid it, or else embracing that moral framework and tying their hedonism into an ingrained self-loathing.
There are many ways to construct a personality for your protagonist, but these three stages create a skeleton that will give later ideas a more definite fate. Maybe you want to write a kick-ass pacifist, or a pious bank robber; any combination of traits is possible, but they only become believable when they’re reconciled in a consistent personality.
This is the framework for writing an effective personality, but there are also a couple of tricks to consider when deciding on who your hero will be.
Give your hero opinions
Tastes and opinions are the expression of personality, as well as an easy and direct way to convey it. Scatter them throughout your story, but only if they’re relevant or crop up naturally. Knowing if your hero prefers croutons on their salad, enjoys the feel of leather on their skin, or secretly binge-watches Keeping Up With The Kardashians adds color, but don’t crowbar this information in if there’s no space.
You hero should share traits with your antagonist
The classic hero/villain dynamic is ‘two sides of the same coin’. As we covered in The Two Secrets To Writing A First Rate Villain, your villain should offer a dark reflection of what your hero could become if they strayed from their righteous path, and as such, should share some of your hero’s worst traits.
In Pride and Prejudice, heroine Elizabeth tends to judge people too quickly, which is unfortunate for Mr. Darcy – her antagonist-turned-love-interest – who tends to make very poor first impressions. In the Harry Potter series, Harry and Voldemort are shown to be constant parallels of one another; both nearly ending up in the same Hogwarts house, sharing the same wand cores, and both sharing the rare Parseltongue ability and some considerable anger control problems. This connection comes to a head during the climax of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, when Harry is able to focus on their fundamental differences and purge Voldemort from his body.
A great personality
In the end, a well-considered personality will pay your hard work back tenfold. It’s the bedrock of believable character interactions, realistic dialogue, and your reader’s sense that they understand (even own) the characters you’re portraying.
To take an even deeper dive into what makes a character engaging, check out The Dos and Don’ts Of Writing Smart Characters and Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh. You should also try Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device for a surprising way to explore what makes a character special. Do you have more suggested tips for forging a strong personality? Let me know in the comments.